The year was 1961, and young Stephen Zack was terrified.
At 13, he had been waiting with his mother and siblings to board a flight from Havana to Miami when Cuban officials called out his name from a gray metal binder. He was berated, searched and locked overnight in a dark, windowless room, wondering if he would ever see his family again.
It was that experience and the feeling of helplessness it evoked that Zack now says made him want to be a lawyer.
"What I felt was this was wrong, and somebody should care about this. Somebody should do something," the 61-year-old trial lawyer said in a recent interview.
It's a story Zack has recounted frequently to explain what set him on the path to become the first Hispanic president-elect of the American Bar Association. Zack, who heads the Miami office of Boies Schiller & Flexner, assumes office today at the ABA's annual meeting in Chicago.
Few who know the affable University of Florida law graduate are surprised to see him break that barrier, just as 20 years ago he became the youngest and first Hispanic president of the Florida Bar.
"He's bringing a new perspective to the leadership of the ABA," said Miami criminal defense lawyer Neal Sonnett, a member of the ABA's board of governors. "He innately feels issues that deal with democracy and the rule of law and who we are as a country."
Zack, an energetic member of the South Florida bar, is active in Democratic circles and was part of Al Gore's legal team in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election.
Topping Zack's agenda is promoting diversity in the legal profession, boosting civics education in public schools and protecting the rights of Hispanics. Zack also hopes to use his bully pulpit at the 400,000-member professional organization to speak out for greater human rights and stronger justice systems in Latin America.
Miami attorney Roland Sanchez-Medina Jr., president of the Cuban American Bar Association, said Zack's election could make Hispanic lawyers feel more welcome in the bar group.
"The ABA can be considerably more diverse in terms of Hispanics, and the perspective Steve brings is going to open their eyes," Sanchez-Medina said. "It's like seeing Sonia Sotomayor become the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. It gives our daughters and sons realization they can reach any heights in this country."
If Zack's life story speaks to achievement in the face of barriers in the same vein as Sotomayor or President Obama, his political skills are more reminiscent of Bill Clinton, according to friends.
"For some people, it's difficult to be charming all day. For Steve, it's easy," said Alan Dimond, a partner at Greenberg Traurig in Miami and a former Florida Bar president.
Boies Schiller partner James Fox Miller, who succeeded Zack as Florida Bar president, put it this way: "He can make 100 people feel like there's room on his lifeboat even though there are only 10 seats."
It's a skill that carries over in the courtroom, according to Zack's partner David Boies, the prominent New York litigator who led Gore's trial team during the recount.
"He has the ability to communicate with people, to win their trust and to explain things to them in a way they will understand and believe," Boies said. "He genuinely likes people, and I think that comes across."
But no one should mistake Zack's good nature and self-deprecating humor for the notion he's a pushover, friends say.
In 38 years as a trial lawyer, Zack has represented the Florida Senate in court on reapportionment matters and defended tobacco firm Philip Morris in a long-running class action suit for smoking-related injuries and deaths.
In 2008, Zack teamed up with former independent counsel Ken Starr to represent the National Geographic Society in a case before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals involving republication rights. The magazine prevailed.
Clearly, underneath Zack's warm exterior (and his trademark orange-tinged coif) is a tenacious litigator who doesn't shrink from a hard fight and hasn't forgotten where he started.
"Coming from a place in which all the rights of his family, friends and neighbors had been taken away, I think he was affected by the fact that America was a place in which people's rights were protected," Boies said. "It makes him committed to the rule of law and its expansion."
Zack's mother was a Cuban-born daughter of Russian emigres. She met Zack's father, a U.S. citizen, while attending college in Michigan.
The oldest of three siblings, Zack was born in Detroit and raised in Havana, where he attended the bilingual Ruston Academy, a prestigious private school. He was especially close to his grandfather, a self-made businessman who owned a shoe factory confiscated by the regime of Fidel Castro. After fleeing to the United States, Zack's family rented a dingy hotel room on Miami Beach.
"We went from a very comfortable situation to where I didn't have 15 cents to ride a bus," said Zack, who worked part time in a shoe store to help out.
That Zack was Jewish -- a self-proclaimed "Jewbano" -- made him even more of an outsider, he said.
As a young lawyer, Zack noticed his colleagues dined at lunch clubs that would not admit women or Jewish men.
"When I look back on that, I ask myself how we could have accepted it," he remarked at an ABA summit on diversity in June.
A commitment to equality drives many of the items on Zack's agenda as future ABA president, including his plans to form the group's first commission on the legal rights of Hispanics. The panel would examine issues related to immigration, voting rights, civil rights, criminal law and juvenile detention.
Civil rights leader Cruz Reynoso, the first Latino to serve on the California Supreme Court, said the time is ripe for such a commission and for a Hispanic lawyer to lead the ABA.
"It's time to recognize that minorities are a true part of this country and can provide leadership, not just for minority groups but for all Americans," he said.
MAKES IT HAPPEN
To step inside Zack's office at Boies Schiller is to know he is a collector.
Framed press clippings line the walls. Mementos -- a Barack Obama bobblehead, bronze scales of justice from a former partner, a Cuban cigar box -- clutter every surface.
Zack also is an animated storyteller, as evidenced by his practiced impersonation of the late Florida Congressman Claude Pepper, who hired Zack out of law school as a legislative aide.
The trick to capturing Pepper's thick Southern accent is to puff the cheeks, according to Zack. When his former boss would introduce him it came out as "Teve Tack," he said, leading to stacks of correspondence addressed to a Mr. Tack.
After leaving Pepper's staff, Zack joined the litigation firm of Watergate defense lawyer William Frates and went on to serve as general counsel to Florida Gov. Bob Graham. He formed two law firms bearing his name before merging with Boies Schiller in 2002.
Just once, Zack ran for political office, challenging Ileana Ros-Lehtinen for a seat in the Florida Senate in 1988. After a narrow loss, Zack contented himself with a life "around the edges" of government.
A longtime Democratic donor, Zack served as chairman of the Florida Ethics Commission and was appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1997 to the panel responsible for revising the Florida Constitution.
On the constitutional revision commission, Zack showed a talent for lowering tension among members, said longtime friend Ellen Freidin, campaign chair for Fair Districts Florida.
"He has the ability to size up a situation, determine what's best for the common good and then make it happen," she said.
In addition to his involvement in Bush v. Gore, Zack was general counsel for U.S. Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign in Florida.
Former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, a partner at Miami's Burlington & Coffey, said those who work with Zack consider him a "lawyer first and foremost," not a partisan.
Both men are serving on the Federal Judicial Nominating Commission for the Southern District of Florida, which screens applicants for U.S. Attorney and the federal bench.
Zack rejected criticism that the 20 lawyers appointed to the influential panel by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., were not adequately diverse and said he did not consult with the senator or his aides about the selections.
"I know Bill Nelson to be a very inclusive person, and you can see from the nominations we sent up that they are very diverse," Zack said.
The six candidates advanced for the positions of U.S. district judge and U.S. Attorney include two blacks, one Hispanic and one woman.
Sanchez-Medina said he felt comfortable with the panel's choices.
"I applaud their efforts. They gave a very diverse group of qualified people," he said.
But attorney Lisa Lehner, a director of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, said that amounts to putting the cart before the horse.
"If you look at it that way, you can justify having 20 members who were white men," she said. "You have to have fair representation in the commission itself."
Zack, who lives on Di Lido Island off the Venetian Causeway, is the sixth former Florida Bar president and the second Miamian to assume the ABA presidency. He was groomed for the post by legendary Florida lawyer Chesterfield Smith, who built the law firm Holland & Knight and served as president of the ABA in the early 1970s.
From 2004 to 2006, Zack presided over the ABA House of Delegates, which sets policy for the organization. After his term, Zack sat out for two years as required by ABA rules and then secured enough support to avoid any challengers running for the presidency.
In the interim, Zack married longtime companion Marguerite Atkins, the daughter of former Florida Bar president Edward Atkins and the niece of the late Chief U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins. Zack has two adult children from his first marriage and two granddaughters.
As ABA president, Zack hopes to promote diversity in the legal profession by addressing the high cost of legal education and push states to make civics education mandatory.
The matter couldn't be more urgent with 80 percent of graduating high school students unable to correctly name the three branches of government, Zack said. His concern, Zack wants to make clear, is not just for the kids.
"It's more what we're going to be missing out on," he said. "Because we're going to be missing out on a whole generation that we're going to call upon to defend our liberty."
That brings him to another piece of memorabilia in his office -- a copy of the Cuban Constitution in place when Fidel Castro came to power. It's not all that different than the U.S. version, Zack said.
That's a lesson he thinks is worth learning.
"The constitution is just words," Zack said. "They're meaningless unless the next generation accepts the obligations that go along with the privileges."